The defense department regrets to inform you that your sons are dead because they were stupid.
It’s easy to marginalize Top Gun as just another Simpson/Bruckheimer film, an action movie, and/or a piece of 1980s nostalgia. It is, after all, all of the above, and cinema aficionados often marginalize all of the above. But to push it to the side of the DVD pile, to treat it like it’s Thief of Hearts, wouldn’t make for an interesting piece of criticism now, would it?
Let’s think back to 1986, shall we? Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. Margaret Thatcher was seven years into her term as Prime Minister of Great Britain. (Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada, in case anyone cares.) In January, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. In April, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Kiev exploded. It would be another three years before the Berlin Wall would be torn down, and the Cold War was still a real threat to Americans. Three years earlier, the Soviets shot down a civilian airliner that wandered into their airspace. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union. While he had introduced reforms in his own country, it would still be another year before he and Reagan would sign a landmark non-proliferation treaty that would signal the end of years of tense relations. Closer to home, televangelists were still seen as Jesus freaks, not con men. AIDS barely registered on the public consciousness and was still thought of mostly as a gay thing. The Nintendo game system was brand new, and the Atari 2600 was still going strong. The 386 computer had just been introduced. Most computers didn’t have hard drives, and if they did, they could hold about 10MB and cost about as much as an entire system from Dell today. Windows was at version 1.0. The Commodore 64 was all the rage. The Macintosh was just a glimmer in Apple’s eye — the height of their technology was the Apple IIe. CD-ROMs were brand new. Movie budgets over $20 million, let alone actors’ salaries, were unheard of, and a movie that made over $100 million was a rare thing indeed (in fact, of the top ten grossing movies for 1986, only half made over $100 million; ten years later, you’d have to go to #16 to find one that made under that amount). The big movies for the year were Crocodile Dundee, Platoon, and The Karate Kid, Part II. The Best Winner at that year’s Oscars was Out of Africa. PG rated movies could still attract adult audiences. Computer-generated special effects were only just making their appearance in films, with 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes being the early innovators. On the music front, groups like Klymaxx, Mr. Mister, and Survivor dominated the charts. Madonna was at the height of her popularity following the release of True Blue, featuring the #1 hit “Papa Don’t Preach.”
This was the world that received Top Gun. Would it change filmmaking? Nah. Would it collect gold statues? Only an Academy Award for Best Song, and a couple technical nominations. Would it set the box office on fire? Oh yeah, to the tune of $177 million, making it the top grosser of the year. Would it become a cultural icon? You bet.
Lt. Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), AKA Maverick, is a Navy pilot out there every day keeping the world safe from the faceless Red Menace. After a close encounter (literally) with a Russian MiG, Maverick and his weapons officer, Lt. Nick Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, ER), AKA Goose, are selected for training at Miramar Naval Air Base. Nicknamed “Top Gun,” Miramar is where the Navy’s best pilots are sent to train to, uh, be better pilots, I guess. While in training, Maverick must come to terms with his irresponsible, hotdogging ways, thanks to the death of a close friend and the love of a beautiful woman, Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis, Witness), who happens to be an instructor at the school.
There’s got to be something to this Top Gun thing, right? It is still popular nearly twenty years after its release — or at least it hasn’t faded into obscurity like some of the other top grossers from 1986, like Crocodile Dundee, Ruthless People, or Back to School (though it has a cameo by one of my favorite ’80s bands, Oingo Boingo). There must be something to the film that connects with audiences long after they sold their Pet Shop Boys LPs. And what about its star? Not just any film becomes the defining moment of an actor’s career, let alone the #4 box office draw of all time. After all, no one thinks about the turning point in Harrison’s Ford young career and thinks it was Getting Straight. Like many films that have timeless appeal (at least the films with timeless appeal that prove my point), Top Gun accomplished two things: it connected with its 1986 audience, yet it didn’t date itself so extensively that it could not be appreciated many years hence without the stale air of the passé. So, let’s look at it through this temporal filter, shall we?
I was only a lad of 11 in 1986, but I was still aware of the problems in our world, that those godless Communists were sitting there waiting to bomb us all to Kingdom Come. Top Gun taps into that to a degree, making the Russians the deux ex machina to propel the plot forward, always in the back of our minds thanks to the dogfight that beings the movie and that is referenced throughout, as well as the last fight that gives Maverick the confidence to get “back in the saddle.” The issue isn’t pressed; the Soviets are background noise, not the reason for the film’s existence. In fact, I can’t even recall hearing them called Soviets or Russians or anything that would identify them; all we get are references to MiGs and bogies. I wonder if this was a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers so that the film would have timeless appeal. Filmgoers in 1986 didn’t need it spelled out for them. Everyone would’ve known that a MiG was a Soviet fighter after that airliner was shot down near Korea a few years earlier, and the red star insignia on the aircraft would’ve been a dead giveaway. Today, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we may need to have our memories jostled, but it’s still obvious that they’re the Bad Guys.
These fighter pilots, with their millions of dollars of cool hardware and chicks waiting to shag them, were the epitome of cool. Top Gun taps into the male mystique of the mid- to late-’80s, the big dick swagger and machismo that marked the big screen heroes of the era, the Sylvester Stallones and Arnold Schwarzeneggers, or even the more down-to-earth heroes like Indiana Jones. These were men’s men, after years of disco and feminism. For the Me Decade, Top Gun was a great example of individualism and putting yourself first — after all, when you’re in the air you don’t have to think about your buddy in the trenches. You get to be Number One. It was speed. It was power. It was living on the edge. It was the ’80s. Of course, looking at it twenty years later, it’s a wonder that the thinly veiled homoeroticism didn’t scare away middle America. You could make quite a drinking game out of taking shots every time you see guys putting their arms around each other, or walking around shirtless, or looking at each other’s asses in the locker room, or talking knowingly to each other mere inches from each other’s faces. Makes you wonder if these guys were more interested in impressing each other or the ladies they hit on. Who were the targets in that “target-rich environment” — the chicks or the other pilots?
At the fore of Top Gun was a guy who had made a small splash playing teenagers, guys who played football and hired prostitutes and threw rebellions at military schools. Tom Cruise was well on his way to being a star, and all he needed to be a legend (err, pun intended) was a movie to top the box office charts and put his name permanently on the A-list. Top Gun would be that movie. Pete Mitchell is the sort of character that any young actor would want to play. On the surface, he’s cool — if you looked up “cool” in the Dictionary of the ’80s, you’d find a picture of a fighter pilot. But Maverick’s also a complicated guy, as would be any guy who’s known as “Maverick,” even to his girlfriend. He has a checkered past, a father who died under mysterious circumstances, whose dubious service record has tainted his son’s career. He tries to hard to compensate, his showboating covering up for his lack of confidence. It’s a bildungsroman, a coming of age story for someone who has to come to terms with himself, face his demons, and grow into his destiny as the Navy’s best pilot. Tom Cruise may not get a lot of credit for his acting chops, but he brought out all these shades in the character, both macho and mopey, and created an indelible mark on cinema.
Speaking of acting, I’ve seen this movie quite a bit over the years, but I had never really considered how good Val Kilmer is in it until I turned a critical eye toward the film for this review. He seems to be a secondary character, only there to provide some competition for Maverick in the Top Gun training. But you watch their scenes together, and he becomes something more. Iceman is competitive and ego-centric, the same as Maverick, but he understands that it’s in service to a greater ideal, that you’re fighting for something other than yourself and must look out for the well-being of your fellow pilots. Tom Skerritt is the father figure to this boy in the coming of age drama, the Obi-Wan to Tom Cruise’s Luke Skywalker. Val Kilmer becomes his Yoda, the mysterious, enigmatic conscience, the one who plants seeds of wisdom and leads him toward enlightenment.
By now I’m sure you’re thinking, come on Mike, why make such a big deal about what’s just a run of the mill ’80s movie? To be sure, films like Wall Street or The Breakfast Club better defined society; E.T., The Goonies, and the latter two Star Wars films are nearer and dearer to the hearts of those that grew up during the decade; and Raging Bull and Amadeus may better mark the heights of ’80s filmmaking. But among all of them flies a film that tapped into America’s psyche, that launched the decade’s brightest new star, that stands the test of time as a crowd-pleasing favorite. Top Gun may not deserve the fuss on a filmmaking level, but on a popularity level? Yeah, it’s a big deal.
Paramount has finally gotten wise to the DVD format. Sure, they still dump catalog titles in bare-bones editions, but they’ve started recognizing important films like Top Gun (come on, don’t start rolling your eyes at its “importance” now) with brand-new or reissue special editions. In this case, it’s a double-dip, replacing a 1998 release that was non-anamorphic and bare bones. I haven’t seen that release, so I can’t comment on how the audio or video compare. What I can tell you is, short of hi-def, this is the best Top Gun will ever look or sound at home. Top Gun‘s mix of aerial, ground, and blue-screen footage (mixed with some model work) leads to a noticeable difference in video quality throughout the film, which is obvious even on VHS or television broadcasts. Because it was shot in Super 35, there’s a considerable amount of grain. These problems do not disappear in this DVD, but if you want to be glass-is-half-full about it, the transfer preserves the source material beautifully, warts and all, and it does not introduce transfer problems like pixelation or edge enhancement, and a clean source print was used so defects are kept to a bare minimum. Audio is available in DTS 6.1 or Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 surround flavors (as well as 2.0 surround in French). While it certainly isn’t as aggressive as modern surround audio (a lot sure has changed in that department in 20 years!), it’s still enveloping and assertive enough to support the movie and its frequent action. Naturally, the DTS track has better range and oomph, so it’s the preferred option.
So what about special features to justify that Special Edition label? Top Gun‘s got them aplenty.
* Commentary Track: Here you get one of those spliced-together tracks where few (if any) of the participants were recorded together. While I certainly prefer to hear the participants play off each other, with this style you get very few gaps in the aural flow of information, and this track is no exception. The participants are producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, writer Jack Epps Jr., and military advisors Mike Galpin, Pete Pettigrew, and Mike McCabe. They all have interesting insights, making this an informative and enjoyable track.
* Music Videos: You can argue about just what movie made the soundtrack an integral part of the film’s marketing and financial success, but this film makes a good case for itself. Here you get music videos for the breakout hits Top Gun‘s soundtrack produced: Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” Loverboy’s “Heaven in Your Eyes,” and Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem” (if any composer screams ’80s movie music, it’s Harold Faltermeyer; sadly, his last major film project was 1992’s Kuffs). I skipped these myself, but they’re here if you’re into that sort of thing. There’s even a “Play All” option, a nice touch.
* TV Spots: You get seven ads for the film (though, sadly, no theatrical trailers). These are worth watching, if for no other reason than to observe how marketers can make one film appeal to so many different audiences. There’s a “Play All” option here as well.
* Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun: This documentary is presented in six parts: “From the Ground Up: Pre-Production,” “Playing With the Boys: Production: Land and Sea,” “The Need for Speed: Production: Air,” “Back to Basics: Visual Effects,” “Combat Rock: The Music of Top Gun” (sigh, if only the Clash reference meant they were on the soundtrack), and “Afterburn: Release and Impact.” Produced by masterful DVD documentarian Charles de Lauzirika for this DVD release, it’s a fantastic 147-minute look at the making of the film. As a reviewer you get sort of jaded to these documentaries, seeing so many of them, because they all consist of the same stuff — talking heads and on-set footage. What really sets them apart is the quality of the participants and the detail and interest of the material. Here, you get quite a few members of the cast and crew — actors Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Rick Rossovich, Michael Ironsides, and Barry Tubb; director Tony Scott; producer Jerry Bruckheimer; screenwriter Jack Epps; editors Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber; technical experts Pete Pettigrew and Michael Galpin; directors of photography Jeffrey Kimball and Rick Fichter; visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez; and many more. Scott has a very detailed memory of filming the movie, and his anecdotes are of the most interest. Rossovich is also really a revelation; of the cast, he gets the most screentime and has some great behind-the-scenes stories of what transpired between the cast on the set. There’s some great on-set stuff, like footage from filming on the U.S.S. Enterprise (including Tony Scott revealing how he wrote a check for $25,000 to convince the captain to turn the ship off-course so that he could film a shot in the proper light). There’s maybe one other making-of doc I’ve seen on a DVD that tops this one — the one from the Quadrilogy release of Alien3 — and that’s only because that documentary really aired the dirty laundry about the making of the film, while this one is mostly positive — but hey, not all shoots are as troublesome as Alien3. About the only negative comments are regarding Tony Scott’s first cut of the film, which focused too much on the aerial footage and not enough on the storyline or explaining to the audience what was going on. Another great thing about this documentary: It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen.
* Multi-Angle Storyboards: For two scenes from the film, you get a multi-angle presentation — one shows strictly Tony Scott’s storyboards, one shows side-by-side comparisons of the storyboards and the final footage — with optional commentary by Tony Scott.
* Vintage Gallery: This is EPK stuff dating to the making of the film. There’s a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, a seven-minute featurette on the training the actors went through to play actors, six minutes of raw interview footage with Tom Cruise, and an extensive photo gallery (including a deleted scene of Maverick and Charlie visiting Goose’s grave).
Top Gun doesn’t go for the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of some releases, but the high quality of the commentary track and documentary more than make up for the lack of an extensive feature list. It may not be a target-rich environment, but they’re rich targets. Know what I mean?
You may think of Top Gun as just another ’80s movie, no more or less special than Dirty Dancing, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Three Men and a Baby, The Terminator, Die Hard, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Three Amigos, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds, Short Circuit…you know, any other movie known and loved from the decade of leg warmers, insider trading, and Devo. And all my pontificating aside, it’s probably no or less special than any of those movies, with no more effect on the landscape of cinema than making lots of money and establishing a loving fanbase for years to come.
But isn’t that worth celebrating? Is it any better or worse than any number of popular films from the decades that preceded it? Of course not. Films can be artistic achievements, they can be socially aware and teach us about things outside of the bubble of our everyday lives. But most films exist to entertain, and Top Gun does that in spades. Enjoy and respect, my friends. Enjoy and respect.